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Magical Thinking, Miscarriages, and Agency

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

Because we are so dependent on others to get our needs fulfilled and because we evolved to crave being loved and loving, relationships are paramount in our lives. Literally, our survival is on the line. Given such high stakes, it is extremely painful to realize that others may be unable to love us in the manner that we would wish—that we need. So, we engage in magical thinking. With magical thinking, we believe that if we just control our behaviors enough, we can get a desired outcome—or avoid an undesired one. We lose sight of what we can and cannot control. And, because we become so focused on trying to control that which is outside of our own control, we often place very little energy on what we can control: our response to things outside of our control. Magical thinking is most prevalent in those of us who had significant disruptions or chaos in our early childhoods (e.g., divorce, death, violence, drug or alcohol abuse). But, we all fall prey to it.

Two years before I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a pregnancy that ended in a second-trimester miscarriage, probably caused by an ureaplasma urealyticum infection. The day that I started leaking amniotic fluid, I had gone kayaking. I was convinced that my smelly kayaking gear had caused this infection, even though there was no medical evidence that this was true. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I did not go kayaking. It is fine for me to have chosen to not kayak while pregnant. But, I had to challenge my magical thinking before I could be non-judgmental about other women’s choices to kayak while pregnant. I had to accept that I could have another miscarriage.

Agency is the degree to which we are able to control what happens in our lives. Agency is expressed before, during, and after an event: how we plan for and influence the possibilities of our lives (forethought), how we respond to events in the moment (self-regulation), and how we make sense of and learn from past events (self-reflection). Utilizing forethought, we develop expectations and aspirations; we motive ourselves and guide our behaviors through visualizing desired outcomes and goal setting. With self-regulation, we control our behaviors by evaluating them against a self-developed standard—both a moral code and a performance standard. As our abilities grown, our performance standard will likewise be raised. Similarly, but usually less rapidly, our moral code can be revised. And, after a challenge, we judge our efficacy in the situation—we reflect upon other things we could have done, our competing values, and reevaluate our goals and aspirations.

We all have agency, to some degree. We all engage in forethought, self-regulation, and self-reflection—again, to some degree. As we are all living in relationship with others, none of us are autonomous—we cannot possess absolute agency. However, most of us have more potential agency than we realize. Although the magnitude of our individual agency is constrained by others’ activities and situational circumstances (including prejudices and privileges), it is also determined by our behaviors. As psychologist Albert Bandura said, “Given that individuals are producers as well as products of their life circumstances, they are partial authors of the past conditions that developed them, as well as the future courses that their lives take.”

Through practice, we can enhance our agency in relationships by systematically attending to forethought, self-regulation, and self-reflection. We lose our agency when we are unable to discern what it is that we can influence and what isn’t within our control. We lose our agency when we do not investigate how we are holding ourselves back. We lose our agency when we don’t challenge our magical thinking. I didn’t have full control over my pregnancy—and, once my daughter was born, I had even less control over what ills would befall her. I do have control over how I deal with my fears, and what behaviors I engage in given my fears. As the Serenity Prayer advises, we seek the serenity to accept what we cannot change, courage to change the things we can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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